Context Notes: Rashaun Mitchell

Cosmically Happy Accidents, Incarnations:
In Process with Rashaun Mitchell’s Light Years

by Jess Barbagallo

On a rainy Wednesday afternoon, I enter the theater at New York Live Arts where Rashaun Mitchell and Co. is preparing his latest work, Light Years. Lighting designer Davison Scandrett is playing with a circular pool of light center stage, tweaking its colors and testing them against a hazer–director and designer agree the haze is too distracting, drawing unnecessary attention to the shapes of the purple, green, and pink shafts that compose the watery mass of light, and the instruments in the air. Rashaun wants to make you feel like you’re not even in a theater. So, there’s that challenge. Now it’ll just take thirty minutes for the haze to clear.

In the meantime, he takes me down the steps past dancer Melissa Toogood (patiently holding for technical purgatory) to give me a fabric tour, the precursor to a costume parade. The spirit is DIY. I’m reminded of a middle school Odyssey of the Mind team; as a team member, you don’t just perform the piece, you make every bit of it. Silas Riener, Rashaun’s longtime collaborator and partner, is crafting a necklace of sporadic gems for Cori Kresge, as Rashaun models a sequined headpiece envisioned for Hiroki Ichinose, simultaneously reminiscent of Seventies disco sensation Sylvester and a knight’s coif. Other materials include African beads, sprays of green palms attached to elastic bands, and fabrics that graphically conjure the tropics and the clouds, the second swath pulled from a manila envelope marked “LIGHT YEARS – EXTRA CLOUD FABRIC.” Eventually Rashaun and Silas will pull these looks together with the help of costume designer Julia Donaldson. But for now, Davison needs to figure out how his lighting sketch can contain so much disparate color, in a piece humming with the tension between what is visibly present in its performing, rotating, and colliding bodies, and the various histories that compete and congeal for stage-surface time on those figures.


A few days prior to my theater visit, Rashaun and I meet at a coffee shop in the Financial District, joined by Rashaun’s mentor and friend Irene Hultman, to discuss the evolution of Light Years. According to Rashaun, the piece “didn’t start with any grand vision,” just the trust of his dancers, a commission from Live Arts, and a commitment to extricate himself from the work performatively so that he could “figure out the core and kernel” of his artistic practice. Rashaun came to prominence as a performer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, where he danced from 2004-11 (and met his love Silas), but over the last few years his creativity has found its home in the creation of interdisciplinary, site-sensitive choreography–in the jerky, alien Interface and the playful institutional critique of connected works like Taste and Way In, related collaborations featuring critic-poet Claudia LaRocco in 2013. (Rashaun muses that this move toward a more directorial role might be a desire for control; as a performer you tend to lose yourself to the larger piece, agency limited to your own limbs.) Over the din, he tells us: “I felt like it was necessary in this point in my timeline to kind of look at the relationships around me and to look at the people I was working with and to figure out who these people are to me and why we’ve chosen each other and why we’ve decided to work together, so I decided to make solos on each of them, just to kind of figure out who they are as individuals. That felt fertile for me and exciting.”

What also emerged from these investigations–one-on-one improvisation sessions with each performer–were deeper questions about Rashaun’s imprint on the work if he was to be absent from the stage: “I’ve wanted to take a step back and be able to really see what I was making … and so in doing that, I kind of realized that there was a lack of representation of my race, you know, and I’m biracial, but obviously when it comes down to it, I’m an African American and I look out and I don’t see that so I have to kind of examine that and think about that. Is this a black dance because I’m making it? These questions were there. They were a little bit unsettling.” For guidance, he turned to James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Samuel Delaney’s Nova, novels written by black men, but predominantly of non-black characters. Fascinated by this parallel, Rashaun would read to his dancers from these texts, without directly citing the material, in an effort to cultivate unmediated, authentic physical responses that would later become phrases in the piece. Curious, I ask if we might hear these borrowed passages in the soundscape, but Rashaun’s impulse, in this case, is abstract rather than pedantic. Like other key lineages fundamental to the work, these words have become embedded in the fibers of the piece like poetic genetic code. Buried ancestry yields trace movements: swinging arms, stumbles, spins, something I record in my journal the first time I see the piece at a studio on Second Avenue … underground space club bounce.

In Rashaun’s world, which he claims with shared ownership, the primitive and futuristic co-exist in a modular form. The work increases in density with the repetition of rehearsal, ever-respondent as it has evolved into a truly independent art object, or structure. His methodology for generating movement is reliant on a few sources: his love of text as movement prompt, a genuine concern for the input of his dancers, and techniques he acquired in his time with Cunningham, separating parts of the body to map out gestural scores and then transplanting that material onto other limbs. In particular, he’s placed special focus on the ribcage and pelvis as sites of movement, noting the lack of attention paid these areas in most postmodern dance. Or as Irene laughingly describes it: “American white dance.”

“I’m taking this structural idea [of displacement], but adding a sense of individual autonomy,” he explains. More dialogue, more dancer’s choice, a fitting impulse for a seasoned performer intimate with the challenges of embodying a strong, singular vision. In the spirit of responsiveness, he adds: “There are just lots of happy accidents that I’m looking for all the time.” By creating a porous work environment, Rashaun has attempted to level and democratize the playing field, and it feels evident, watching the performers move in and out of sync as they pursue their individual orbits in inescapable propinquity. On a rhythmic level, it’s like watching the effects of a slow-building strobe on four highly alert, entranced bodies – sans strobe.

Back at the theater, a tentative decision reached, the center pool of light now swims mysteriously in muted shades of its first draft. After trying several skimpy costume looks, Silas takes the stage–there is a consensus that a particularly wild and patterned bottom leaves him looking too much like a go-go dancer so he defaults to a pair of purple skivvies. He begins to walk in silence just outside the glow of the wavy light; it catches him like a figure withdrawn from the first fire that ever illuminated a cave. His carriage is erect, almost unnaturally so, this movement sampled from a people-watching exercise prompted by Rashaun in the early part of the rehearsal process. Beautiful, simple, he follows the curvature of light, and then there is more light. Melissa joins him, catching up. Suddenly their arms become drum sticks against their bodies, music now present, and side lights start to beat out their own weird, pulsing illuminations. It strikes me that the piece unfolds a wholly original time signature of surprise. Rashaun calls for them to hold, and when I look for the time, I see I am running late for another engagement. As I am leaving, Rashaun graciously thanks me for the few words I was able to mumble to him about the progress of the lights, his process so compelled by internal logic that my comments feel superfluous even to my ears. But I reason: a certain degree of impenetrability is a gift.

Later that night, I pick up Hu Fang’s Dear Navigator, the textual source that came to my mind the first time I encountered Light Years, in that well-windowed studio on Second Ave. It’s is a collection of stories, driven by wandering, faceless protagonists who exist in a present where the primordial and futuristic converge to create a new appreciation of the weather, waves, and stars. I flip to The Hanging Garden, a plotless rumination about a person who longs to be a bat. This aspiration comforts me and feels like a clue: the radical notion that the soul may find home in myriad, unexpected vessels. And then, Rashaun’s dance … if you were to dwell on and relish this animism, how to possibly choreograph it onto moving human bodies?

Maybe humans have forgotten: existence, even the most humble, ensures that everyone is born possessing the knowledge that he or she needs to live. The invisible energy floating in the air transcends the human will, equally shaping the life of all things. When the clouds, light and dust surround me, I start to radiate and react to everything around me. I see my upside-down shadow refracted from the sunlight. I trace my past lives and current incarnation. The invisible design, the heaven-sent version, gives me the ability to escape human sight, gives me time to mature. To not let humans feel too ashamed of their arrogance and greed, or to let them panic and fly into a rage, destroying all their inventions, I must remain mute and carry out the human will.

In the related, yet independent figures of Light Years, I can see that we share a smallness, and this acknowledgment creates a stunning sense of vibrating calm.